So I honestly had every intention of making this completely confusing. I was going to cover yesterday’s LA-San Antonio game, and two of today’s four camp day games in this column, while saving the other two games from today for tomorrow. Then I decided to simplify matters (or I remembered that I’m one of the World’s greatest procrastinators. Maybe a little of both). So all you get today is the late game from last night, Jellybean Bryant’s first game since replacing Jennifer Gillom as LA’s head coach. All four of today’s ridiculously early contests will be discussed in tomorrow’s piece, which I promise to try to post earlier than I usually manage. Let’s say you should be able to read them over dinner on the US East Coast, instead of having to wait until bedtime.
On to that game in San Antonio. LA had lost five in a row coming in – hence Gillom’s removal – but a team with a new person in charge is always dangerous. Everyone’s trying to make a good impression on the new boss, and if nothing else, the mood’s been lightened by getting rid of the person who led them to all those losses. The Silver Stars weren’t exactly on a high themselves, having lost twice to New York since their last victory two weeks ago.
My prediction in yesterday’s column about the LA lineup was half-right: Tina Thompson was back as a starter, but Ticha Penicheiro’s demotion from Gillom’s last game remained in place, sticking with the Noelle Quinn/Kristi Toliver backcourt. San Antonio continued with Jia Perkins as their third perimeter starter, alongside Becky Hammon and Tully Bevilaqua, which immediately creates all kind of mismatches between these two teams. In theory, at least. Whoever you consider the small forward in LA – it varies from Thompson to DeLisha Milton-Jones to Ebony Hoffman from play to play – has to be guarded by one of those itty-bitty guards that the Silver Stars have out on the floor. Vice-versa, one of those three has to try to cover Perkins, who’s way quicker than any of them. In practice, both teams were scrambling, switching and playing so much zone early on that the mismatches kind of got lost.
It was even for the first five minutes, although Tina Thompson picked up two early fouls and was replaced by rookie Jantel Lavender. Which, for those paying attention, means that within five minutes of the tip LA were back to the starting five that got Gillom fired. You have to wonder how much of this team Joe Bryant was already running, even before he officially got the job. Then San Antonio went to their own bench, and as we know, that’s been one of their key strengths this season (although less so since Perkins was promoted into the starting lineup). Danielle Adams came in first for Ruth Riley at center, then seconds later Danielle Robinson replaced Bevilaqua at the point, and big Jayne Appel came in for Perkins. That last switch obviously made San Antonio much taller, matching up more closely with the Sparks, and the Silver Stars went on a run. Both these squads are horrid rebounding teams, but in the first quarter LA were managing to out-awful the Silver Stars on the glass. Even once Thompson was replaced by Lavender, San Antonio were grabbing a constant stream of boards, creating second- and third-chance opportunities, and that built the 23-15 lead that they held at the end of the first quarter.
At this point it was hard to see a lot of differences between Gillom’s Sparks and Bryant’s version. Five minutes of Tina Thompson made it look like Gillom had been right to bench her, the defense was still terrible, and the rebounding still just as bad. Then Jellybean went deep into his reserves. The second quarter was all about LA’s bench, and they wildly outperformed anyone San Antonio could come up with to throw at them. Milton-Jones played the first couple of minutes of the quarter, but when Jenna O’Hea replaced her, it was the five Sparks reserves for the rest of the half. They actually make a lot of sense as a unit. Lavender and LaToya Pringle are both a decent size inside, O’Hea can defend and make shots from outside, Natasha Lacy can actually be effective if you don’t ask her to run your offense and Ticha Penicheiro’s guile and know-how makes up for the youth and inexperience of the other four.
The most remarkable thing in this passage of play was that Ticha was actually being aggressive offensively. We’ve grown so used to seeing her pass and pass and pass however open she may be, but Bryant had clearly sent her out there with instructions to take the damn shot if she’s open, and drive to the hoop if the opportunity presents itself. She had a 19-foot jumper and a pretty driving layup inside the first two minutes of the quarter, and LA were instantly on the front foot and back in the game. Then Lacy got involved, making shots, getting to the rim, and using her athleticism to just generally make an impact on the game. There was one play where Lavender missed badly on a wide-open layup that no one expected her to miss, so nearly everyone responded slowly. Lacy sprung up from under the basket, grabbed the ball and spun in midair for the putback. That’s just athletic ability and activity that you can’t teach. Lacy’s completely wild. There are games where you’ll put her in, and within 30 seconds you’ll know she should sit back down and not play for the rest of the night. But as long as she’s not the point guard – because she can’t run an offense, doesn’t like to pass, and turns the ball over too often – she can spark you offensively. Hopefully Bryant’s better at using her than Gillom was.
San Antonio were struggling to score in the second because everything they put up was an outside jump shot. Pringle and Lavender might be pretty big, but even with the way the Sparks were collapsing on any penetration, the Silver Stars should’ve been able to get more inside. The problem is that Sophia Young and Danielle Adams are their only players with any interior moves whatsoever, and neither is much taller than 6-0. Also, Young would usually rather face up than go down low, and Adams would generally rather fire away from at least 20 feet out. It means a lot of their attempts end up low-percentage efforts. Still, they were hitting enough of them, and getting to the line enough that they stayed in the game. LA were up 43-41 at halftime.
Don’t forget, the Sparks were ahead at the break in both of Gillom’s last two games, and lost both by 19 after precipitous collapses. There was still a question at this point whether anything was going to be different in Bryant’s first game after taking over.
Shockingly enough considering which teams we were watching, both sides came out with their starting lineups from the opening tip intact for the start of the second half. It’s been rare to see that from Dan Hughes lately, with Danielle Robinson often replacing Bevilaqua among other changes, and we never knew what the hell Gillom was going to send out. Sometimes you wondered if Gillom knew. After the early sparring, it was a quarter of streaks. From 48-48, LA rattled off seven straight to take a 55-48 lead and force Hughes into a timeout to right the ship. San Antonio then scored seven straight of their own, including Danielle Adams flat out dominating Tina Thompson for an offensive board and putback, followed by Hammon drawing Thompson in on a drive, then kicking to Adams for a three straight over Tina’s outstretched arm. Thompson really didn’t have much joy last night. Bryant stopped that run with a timeout of his own, and an 8-0 Sparks run followed, largely keyed by all those reserves who were so effective in the first half. LA’s depth was outplaying and outworking San Antonio’s, and it was 65-57 at the end of the third.
After what had been an interesting back-and-forth contest – even if I spent several possessions marvelling at how bad two teams could simultaneously be at rebounding – the fourth quarter was something of a disappointment. You kept waiting for the San Antonio run, especially considering they were in front of their enthusiastic home crowd and facing a Sparks team that had collapsed in recent fourth quarters. It never came. They got within six a couple of times early in the period, but after that LA just pulled away, and the Silver Stars could never hit enough shots to even make it interesting. Penicheiro closed out her personal eighteen point night with a pair of free throws to finish off an 84-74 Sparks win – their first win on the road all season.
San Antonio are probably getting just a little worried at this point. Three losses in a row, and although none of them have been blowouts, they’ve shown up some of those holes I kept talking about at the start of the season. The easy excuse for last night’s game would be that Becky Hammon had a bad night and that led to the loss. Young scored 22, Adams had 16, Perkins 14, but Hammon went 2-14 from the floor for just five points. That would be vastly oversimplifying the issues. So much of their game relies on jump shooting, and although they have talented scorers that’s very dangerous because shooters go cold. On nights where teams close out well on their gunners, or the shots simply aren’t falling, they’re in trouble. They were 36% from the floor, including 4-22 (18%) from three-point range in this one. Against a team that typically plays awful perimeter defense (although the Sparks did seem more lively than usual out there last night). Getting beat on the boards 43-31 by LA is basically just embarrassing as well. The Silver Stars are 7-4 but (whisper it quietly – I don’t want Silver Stars Nation coming after me), might just be the most catchable team for LA to make the playoffs.
It’s only one game, but you have to say that LA looked better. It was hard to pick out any specific sets or structures that were all that different, but there simply seemed to be more energy and enthusiasm amongst the players than we’d seen in recent games under Gillom. Quinn and Penicheiro hounded Hammon into her ugly shooting night, and the rest of the defense did everything they could to close off the paint and force San Antonio to beat them from outside. Offensively, Bryant’s clearly encouraging his players to be aggressive and take what’s being offered to them, or he’ll put someone out on the floor who will. Penicheiro, Lacy and Lavender turned those instructions into 18, 13 and 12 points respectively, to lead the team. It remains to be seen whether he can juggle these players and lineups effectively on nights where his bench doesn’t get red hot and make a lot of the decisions for him. Also, Tina Thompson ultimately played under 13 minutes, took just four shots and scored only two points. I hate to say it about a legend, but she’s just looked old in a lot of games this season. Can Jellybean keep Tina happy and hold his roster together, even if it means reducing the minutes for his veterans? Guess we’re going to find out.
In other news…
All-Star Game starters will be announced tomorrow night, during the Seattle-San Antonio game on ESPN2. You got my picks for who I felt ought to be starting last week, but if you want me to guess who I expect the fans to have voted in, I’ll go with Pondexter, Douglas, Catchings, McCoughtry and Charles in the East; Bird, Taurasi, Moore, Cash and Parker in the West. Then we let the coaches sort out the rest, with the reserves announced on the ESPN2 broadcast of the Seattle-Chicago game next Tuesday. I’ll offer my choices for those (and bitch about the coaches getting it wrong) in future columns.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Atlanta @ New York, 12pm ET
Tulsa @ Chicago, 12.30pm ET
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 1pm ET
Connecticut @ Indiana, 1pm ET
Seattle @ San Antonio, 9pm ET